Momma told us one day that she was taking us to California. She
explained that we were growing up, that we needed to be with
our parents, that Uncle Willie was crippled, that she was getting
too old. All true, but none of those truths satisfied our need for
The Truth. The Store and the rooms in back became a goingaway
factory. Momma sat at the sewing machine for hours,
making and remaking clothes for use in California.
Whatever the real reason, The Truth, for taking us to
California, I shall always think it lay mostly in an incident in
which Bailey had the leading part. On an afternoon a few weeks
before Momma revealed her plan to take us West, Bailey came
into the Store shaking. His face was no longer black but a dirty,
colorless gray. As we always did when we entered the Store, he
walked behind the candy counter and leaned on the cash register.
Uncle Willie had sent him on an errand to whitefolks’ town and
he wanted an explanation for Bailey’s late return. After a brief
moment our uncle could see that something was wrong and,
feeling unable to cope, he called Momma from the kitchen.
“What’s the matter, Bailey Junior?”
He said nothing. I knew when I saw him that it would be
useless to ask anything while he was in that state. It meant that
he had seen or heard of something so ugly or frightening that
he couldn’t make himself respond as a result. He had explained
when we were young that when things were very bad his soul
went to sleep. When it awoke, the fearful thing had gone away.
I had to swear that when his soul was sleeping, I would never
try to wake it; the shock might make it go to sleep for ever. So
I left him alone, and after a while Momma had to leave him
When he felt better he asked Uncle Willie what colored
people had done to white people to make them hate us. Uncle
Willie, who was not used to explaining things because he was
like Momma, said little except that “colored people hadn’t even
bothered a hair on whitefolks’ heads.”
Bailey said he saw a man, a colored man, who was dead.
Uncle Willie asked, “W h o— who was it?”
Bailey said, “When I passed the prison, some men had just
fished him out of the lake. He was wrapped in a sheet, all rolled
- Then a white man walked over and pulled the sheet off. The
man was on his back but the white man stuck his foot under the
sheet and rolled him over on his stomach. He had no color at all,
and he was blown up like a ball. The colored men backed away,
and I did, too, but the white man stood there, looking down, and
grinned. Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?”
Uncle Willie replied, “They don’t really hate us. They don’t
know us. How can they hate us? They’re mostly scared.”
Momma asked if Bailey had recognized the man, but he didn’t
“Mr. Bubba told me I was too young to see something like
that and I ought to go straight home, but I had to stay. Then the
white man called us closer. He said, ‘O.K., you boys, take him
into the prison. When the Sheriff comes, he’ll inform his family.
This is one nigger nobody has to worry about anymore. He ain’t
going nowhere else.’ Then the men picked up corners of the
sheet, but since nobody wanted to get close to the man they held
only the ends, and he almost rolled out on the ground. The
white man called me to come and help too.”
Momma exploded. “Who was it?” She made herself clear.
“Who was the white man?”
Bailey couldn’t let go of the horror. “I picked up a side of the
sheet and walked in the prison with the men. I walked in the
prison carrying a rotten dead Negro.” His voice was ancient with
shock. His eyes were huge.
“The white man pretended he was going to lock us all in
there, but Mr. Bubba said, ‘Oh, Mr. Jim. We didn’t do it. We ain’t
done nothing wrong.’ Then the white man laughed and said we
boys couldn’t take a joke, and opened the door.” He breathed his
relief. “I was glad to get out of there. The prison, and the
prisoners screaming that they didn’t want any dead nigger in
there with them. That he’d make the place smell bad. They called
the white man ‘Boss.’ They said, ‘Boss, surely we ain’t done
nothing bad enough for you to put another nigger in here with
us, and a dead one, too.’Then they laughed. They all laughed like
there was something funny.”
Bailey was talking sofast he forgot to stutter. He was thinking
about a mystery that young Southern Black boys start to solve, try
to solve, from the time they’re seven years old until their death.
The humorless puzzle of inequality and hate. His experience
raised the question of worth and values, of aggressive inferiority
and aggressive arrogance. Could Uncle Willie, a Black man,
Southern, and crippled, hope to answer the questions, asked and
unasked? Would Momma, who knew the ways of the whites and
the ways of the Blacks, try to answer her grandson, whose life
depended on him not truly understanding the mystery? Most
They both responded characteristically. Uncle Willie said
something like he didn’t know what the world was coming to,
and Momma prayed, “God rest his soul, poor man.” I’m sure she
began planning the details of our California trip that night.
Our transportation was Momma’s major concern for many
weeks. She had arranged with a railroad employee to provide her
with a pass in exchange for groceries. The pass allowed a reduced
fare only, and even that had to be approved. So we had to wait
until white people we would never see, in offices we would never
visit, signed and stamped and mailed the pass back to Momma.
My fare had to be paid in cash. Taking that much money out of
our cash register was financially difficult. Momma decided Bailey
couldn’t accompany us, but that he would follow within a month
or so when the bills were paid. Although our mother now lived
in San Francisco, Momma must have felt it wiser to gofirst to
Los Angeles, where our father was. She had me write letters,
telling me what to write, advising them both that we were on
And we were on our way, but unable to say when. Our clothes
were washed, ironed, and packed. Neighbors, who understood
the difficulties of travel, said goodbye a million times. A widowed
friend of Mommas had agreed to take care of Uncle Willie.
After thousands of false departures, at last we left Stamps.
My sorrow was limited to sadness at separating from Bailey for
a month (we had never been separated), the imagined loneliness
of Uncle Willie (at thirty-five, he’d never been separated from his
mother), and the loss of Louise, my first friend. I wouldn’t miss
Mrs. Flowers, because she had given me her secret word which
would help me all my life: books.
I didn’t actually think about meeting Mother until the last day
of our journey. I was “going to California.” To oranges and
sunshine and movie stars and earthquakes and (finally I realized)
to Mother. My old guilt returned. I wondered if Mr. Freeman’s
name would be mentioned, or if I would be expected to say
something about the situation myself. I certainly couldn’t ask
Momma, and Bailey was a million miles away.
I was unprepared to meet my mother. Too soon she stood
before me, smaller than I remembered but more wonderful than
any memory. She wore a light-brown suit, shoes to match, and a
hat with a feather in the band. She patted my face with her
gloved hands. She kissed and laughed and rushed about collecting
our coats and organizing our luggage. She easily took care of the
details. I was amazed again at how wonderful she was.
We moved into an apartment, and I slept on a sofa that was
changed at night into a large comfortable bed. Mother stayed in
Los Angeles long enough to get us settled. Then she returned to
San Francisco tofind a place to live for her suddenly larger
Momma and Bailey (he joined us a month after our arrival)
and I lived in Los Angeles for about six months while our
permanent living arrangements were being finalized. Daddy
Bailey visited occasionally, bringing shopping bags of fruit. He
was like a Sun God, bringing warmth and light to our lives.
When the arrangements for our move north were completed,
Momma gave us the shocking news that she was going back to
Arkansas. She had done her job. She was needed by Uncle Willie.
We had our own parents at last. At least we were all in the same
There were days of unknowing for Bailey and me. It was fine
to say that we would be with our parents, but who were they?
Would they be more severe with our mistakes than she? That
would be bad. Or less severe? That would be even worse. Would
we learn to speak the fast language of our Mexican neighbors? I
doubted that, and I doubted even more that I would ever find
out what they laughed about so loudly and so often.
I would have been willing to return to Stamps even without
Bailey. But Momma left for Arkansas without me.
Mother drove us toward San Francisco over the big white
highway that seemed like it would never end. She talked
constantly and pointed out places of interest. She told humorous
stories and tried to win our attention. But her personality, and
the fact that she was our mother, had done the job so successfully
that her efforts were unnecessary. Nothing could have been more
magical than to have found her at last, and have her completely
to ourselves in the closed world of a moving car.
Although we were both delighted, Bailey and I were aware of
her nervousness. The knowledge that we had the power to upset
that godlike person made us look at each other and smile. It also
made her human.
We spent a few months in an Oakland apartment which had a
bathtub in the kitchen and was near enough to the train station
to shake at the arrival and departure of every train. In many ways
it was like being in St. Louis again—and Grandma Baxter was
again living with us.
We went to school and nofamily member questioned the
amount or quality of our work. We went to a playground which
had a basketball court, a football field, and table tennis tables in
shelters with roofs. On Sundays, instead of going to church, we
went to the movies.
I slept with Grandmother Baxter. One evening after going to
bed normally, I was awakened by a shaking. I saw my mother
kneeling by my bed. She brought her face close to my ear.
“Ritie,” she whispered, “Ritie. Come, but be very quiet.” Then
she quietly rose and left the room. Dutifully, I followed. The light
coming through the half-opened kitchen door showed Baileys
pajamaed legs hanging from the covered bathtub. The clock on
the dining-room table said 2:30. I had never been up at that
I looked questioningly at Bailey and knew by his response that
there was nothing tofear. Then I quickly thought about the list
of important events. It wasn’t anybody’s birthday, or April Fool’s
Day, or Halloween, but it was something.
Mother closed the kitchen door and told me to sit beside
Bailey. She put her hands on her waist and said we had been
invited to a party.
Was that why she woke us in the middle of the night! Neither
of us said anything.
She continued, “I am giving a party and you are my honored
and only guests.”
She opened the oven and took out a pan of her cookies and
showed us a pot of chocolate milk on the back of the stove. We
could only laugh at our beautiful and wild mother. When Bailey
and I started laughing, she joined in, but she kept her finger in
front of her mouth to try to quiet us.
We were served formally, and she apologized for not having a
band to play for us but said she’d sing instead. She sang and
danced. What child can resist a mother who laughs freely and
often, especially if the child is mature enough to understand the
World War II started on a Sunday afternoon when I was on my
way to the movies. People in the streets shouted, “We’re at war.
We’ve declared war on Japan.”
I ran all the way home, unsure whether I would be bombed
before I reached Bailey and Mother. Grandmother Baxter calmed
my anxiety by explaining that America would not be bombed,
not as long as Franklin Delano ‘Roosevelt was president. He
knew what he was doing.
Soon after, Mother married Daddy Clidell, who became the
first father I would know. He was a successful businessman, and
he and Mother moved us to San Francisco. Grandmother
remained in the big house in Oakland.
In the early months of World War II, San Francisco’s Fillmore
district experienced a visible change. The Asian population
disappeared. As the Japanese left, soundlessly and without protest,
the Negroes entered. Japanese shops were taken over by Negro
businessmen, and in less than a year became permanent homes
for the newly arrived Southern Blacks. No member of my family
and none of the family friends ever mentioned the absent
Japanese. It was as if they had never owned or lived in the houses
that were now ours.
The sense of change, the lack of permanence of life in
wartime, and the awkward behavior of the recent arrivals helped
to lessen my own sense of not belonging. In San Francisco, for
the first time, I saw myself as part of something. I didn’t identify
with the newcomers, nor with the Black natives of San
Francisco, nor with the whites or even the Asians. I identified
with the times and the city. The feeling of fear that San Francisco
would be bombed strengthened my sense of belonging. Hadn’t I
always thought that life was just one great risk?
To me, a thirteen-year-old Black girl, used to the South and
Southern Black lifestyle, the city was a state of beauty and a state
of freedom. I became free of fears. Feeling safe, I was certain that
no one loved San Francisco as I did.
Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. [http://www.academia.edu/8078608/I_Know_Why_the_Caged_Bird_Sings_-_Full_Text_PDF]. Retrieved from